WALKING ITALY: THE CINQUE TERRE.
( As discussed by Mike Yardley, on Newstalk ZB’s Jack Tame Saturday Show. Jan 26.)
Whereabouts is the Cinque Terre located and what’s the attraction?
Located an hour south of Genoa on the Italian West Coast, and an hour north of Pisa, Cinque Terre literally translates as ‘‘five lands’’. A rugged, mountainous coastal region, with magnificently fertile terraced farms, spectacular scenery and home to the five multi-coloured traditional villages. (Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso.) It’s the rainbow of subtle colours, that make these villages so photogenic. Narrow multi-storied homes, painted in creams, yellows, ochres, and crimsons – and all green-shuttered. Each village is connected by train, that winds its way along the steep coastline and through the national park that envelopes the region. A region so blessed, it enjoys the status of Unesco, as a World Heritage-listed landscape. The mountainside is covered by terraced vineyards, lemon groves, olive groves , ribbons of bougainvillea and fields of fragrant herbs.
How historic is the region? How old are the stone walls? Why is it called the working man’s Riviera?
Following the Saracen raids in the 12th century, 200 years of back-breaking work ensued, as villagers hauled stones across the hills, to build the entire stone wall network, which equals the length of China’s Great Wall. ( 7000kms of stone wall.) A dogged determination must have been in the DNA of the villagers, who tamed this mountainous region, transforming the cliffs into fertile, cultivated terraces. Wine growers use monorail mechanisms to ferry their harvest across the alpine terrain. Alongside viticulture, fishing has been the traditional main-stay of the local economy.
What about the walking routes? How long is the coastal walk? What fitness level is required?
A variety of walking trails criss-cross the region, but the most revered is the Blue Trail, an 11km-long coastal path which threads the five villages together. Buy a one-day Cinque Terre card, which will cost you 6 Euro, and the national park walking trails are yours to explore. The Blue Trail, which stitches the five villages together, takes about 5 hours to complete.
Via Dell’amore , Lovers Lane, is the legendary coastal path that connects the first village, Riomaggiore to its neighbour, Manarola.The path of love has been cut into the steep cliffs and is one of the most photogenic walks I have ever encountered. Much of the Blue Trail is hilly, and you need a reasonable level of fitness to complete it, but Lovers Lane is flat, well-paved and is suitable to walkers of all abilities and ages, including children, prams and wheelchairs.
Haven’t they had problems with floods and rockfalls recently?
Very bad floods caked some of the villages in walls of mud 18 months ago. Last September, a rockfall injured a group of Aussies, shutting the path down. However, it will be good to go, when the walking season commences in March.
What about the train? Can you catch that, if your legs tire?
Absolutely. The Cinque Terre combo train/walking pass, entitles you to use the regional train for free, which stops at all five villages and beyond.It runs every thirty minutes. ( Cost 10 Euro. )
What are the five villages like? Do they have their own distinct personalities? What’s your favourite village?
Yes, they are all distinctive, with their architectural attributes. Monterosso is the biggest, with a new and old town. Riomaggiore is very atmospheric, with lots of traditional old shops, and excellent accommodation. Plus, it’s got spectacular diving facilities. Manarola is wreathed in grapevines. It’s the heart of the regional wine industry. Corniglia is the highest village, perched on a hilltop with incredible coastal views. And Vernazza is my favourite. It’s the most picturesque, with a cute wee harbour, gorgeous beach, and an 800 hundred year old church on the foreshore, dedicated to the sailors of the region.
Where should people stay? A village or in a tourist town, like Pisa?
Some travel agents will book customers into hotels in the tourist cities, close to the Cinque Terre. Pisa, La Spezia or Genoa. But to really immerse yourself in the village charm, you’ve got to spend a night or two in one of the villages. I would recommend Riomaggiore, because it’s easy to get to, and has fantastic accommodation at great-rates. If you are using a travel agent, insist they book you village accommodation.
When’s the best time to go? ( Walking season begins in March)
Cinque Terre enjoys a temperate climate, on the Med. The summer heat can be blistering, so avoid July and August. Anytime from March through to October is good, aside from the peak of summer.
DETAILED GUIDE TO THE VILLAGES.
Riomaggiore is the southern gateway to the Cinque Terre region, and is the biggest of the five villages. From the train station, a short walk through a tunnel, or an elevator ride, will bring you to the heart of the village. A cluster of colourful houses slither down a ravine to form the main street, Via Colombo. The street bustles with traditional stores including a butchery, bakery and general store. Riomaggiore also has some of the region’s best seafood restaurants. The village also offers spectacular diving facilities, and an acclaimed bird-watching sanctuary at Fossola Beach. I highly recommend staying overnight in the Cinque Terre, and Riomaggiore offers the best accommodation options. I stayed at La Casa di Venere, which is a bargain-priced family-run guest house, offering a range of studios and apartments in a traditional village residence. www.lacasadivenere.it
Manarola is a beautiful coastal village dripping in grapes. More grapes are grown around here than any other Cinque Terre village. At the northern end of the village is the imposing medieval bell tower, which served as a key defensive look out in the Middle Ages. There are very few accommodation options in Manarola, but the village has plenty of tasty cafes lining the main street.
Corniglia is balanced precariously along a ridge high above the Mediterranean Sea. Four-storey houses, narrow lanes and stairways weave their way around the ridge. The village’s pretty central square is a popular rest-stop for coastal walkers, before the steepest stretch of the walkway begins!
Vernazza is arguably the most ornate and picturesque of the villages. Set around a tiny harbour, you’ll think you’ve wandered on to a film set, as you descend down the hillside.The small waterfront piazza features a gorgeous small stone church, built in 1318. Vernazza’s main cobbled street, Via Roma, leads from the harbour to the train station, and has some fantastic souvenir shops, specialising in local handicrafts. The ceramics are particularly good.
Monterosso is the most developed of the Cinque Terre villages, with a new town and the old town. Follow the signs to Vecchio, to encounter the village charms of yore, the winding alleys and traditional green-shuttered homes.